Zali Steggall MP speaks on the Public Service Amendment Bill 2023

31 July 2023

I rise to speak on the Public Service Amendment Bill 2023. We know the Public Service plays an important role in the lives of all Australians, so a bill to improve the Public Service is critical to the delivery of better outcomes for Australians who use and depend on their services. The need for such improvements and reforms has been highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic and cost-of-living pressures. This bill emphasises integrity in the Public Service, an issue that has come under scrutiny recently through the appalling findings of the robodebt royal commission and the ongoing revelations about the role and conduct of external consultancies. Australians deserve better. Taxpayer money must be put to best use in the public interest and with integrity and accountability. The government needs to stem the increasing politicisation of the Public Service and prevent future conflicts of interest.

This bill presents an opportunity for the government to restore the public's trust and confidence in government and its institutions. The recently released wellbeing framework shows that the public's trust in institutions and the Public Service continues to decline, now at less than 50 per cent. So this bill is a key element of the government's Australian Public Service reform agenda, which gives effect to a number of the recommendations of the Thodey review. The APS reform agenda has four priority areas to create an Australian Public Service that, firstly, embodies integrity in everything it does; secondly, puts people and business at the centre of policy and services; thirdly, is a model employer; and, fourthly, has the capability to do its job well.

There is no doubt that we have seen more and more the influence and impact of the politicisation of the Public Service. The Public Service must be able to withstand changes of government. It must be able to be frank and fearless in its advice and in how it refers back to the executive. Its job is in the public interest, and it must be there for the Australian people. This bill proposes to address this by adding a new Australian Public Service value of stewardship and adding an APS purpose statement to address the issue that the APS is currently thought to be too internally focused.

It also adds the value of impartiality to reaffirm the apolitical role of the Australian Public Service by making it explicit that ministers cannot direct agency heads on employment matters. While this will help enforce impartiality, I don't believe it goes far enough. Research from the Grattan Institute found that nearly one in 10 of all federal government board appointees have a direct political connection. This figure rises to 21 per cent among those positions that are well paid, prestigious and/or powerful. It becomes the conveyor belt of opportunity for those that have been in politics. There must be a non-partisan scrutiny of senior public service appointments. I commend the member for Mackellar for her efforts to make the appointment process more transparent and accountable through her private member's bill to end jobs for mates. I urge the government to consider amending this legislation to take into account the gold standard of accountability framework for board appointments.

The Public Service Amendment Bill will build the capability of its staff to create a skilled and confident workforce with five yearly capability reviews. The Thodey review points out that the capabilities of the APS have eroded over time with successive governments deciding to cut funding to various agencies. Then, the only people that ultimately pay the price is the public, because the service they receive from the APS is no longer what it should be. So the recommendation from the Thodey review was hiring talented people and offering a quality employee experience in a dynamic workplace.

There must also be accountability around that public service. The bill adds long-term insights reporting and good governance, ensuring the APS is a rewarding place to work.

The bill also includes an accountability and transparency measure through the publishing of annual employee census results. That is very much welcome.

The bill will also enable decision-making to occur at the lowest appropriate classification, which will improve decision-making, empowering staff and reducing bottlenecks. I commend this amendment, as we saw firsthand in our Warringah electoral office the result of bottlenecking in the APS with the post COVID backlog of, for example, visa approvals, where it was clear insufficient workforce had resulted in a process which was really not serving the Australian people well. We saw that as well with passports and so many other areas of public service. The suggested amendment to allow approvals lower down the line will help with this.

Still there is much that could be done better. The bill would be improved by a provision that the merit appointment provision of the Public Service Act should not be evaded by placing external contractors in APS positions, which is hiring talented APS staff to reduce the need for hiring external consultants. Of course, the public has been horrified by the revelations in relation to PwC and the other big four in relation to consulting and ensuring that the Australian public is getting value for money.

The Morrison government spent some $20.8 billion on contractors and outsourcing public service in one financial year alone. An audit found that the equivalent of nearly 54,000 full-time staff were employed as consultants or service providers during the 2021-22 financial year. Those figures are staggering and really shocking to most in the Australian public. While consultants undoubtedly have their place in providing external advice and independent opinion, the practice of shifting cost, risk and responsibility to the private sector is unsustainable and does not represent value for money. It also doesn't ensure that the Australian people have policies and advice to government that survive changes of government. We have to get to policy making that goes beyond the short-term of each parliament.

Also, the practice of only paying for what you want to hear is one of the most corrupting and wasteful practices in this relationship and requires urgent action. The government must look to include the findings from the robodebt royal commission, in particular the recommendations in chapter 23 of the report, which were about improving the APS. That includes an immediate review to determine if the existing structure of the Social Services portfolio and the status of Services Australia as an entity are optimal and whether the agency heads must be held accountable. The report recommends an enhanced ability to investigate departmental secretaries and that former staff be able to be disciplined. At present, secretaries are not covered by the APS Code of Conduct, nor are officials who have left. The APS Commission should develop standards for the documenting of important decisions and discussions and the delivery of training on those standards. We should never have a situation where—for example, under robodebt—the answer that is coming from an external consultant or from a department is not the answer the government of the day wants to hear so the money is paid but no report is made. The lack of integrity in that process is just astounding. The Public Service needs real independence and to be able to be speak truth to power without risking losing their jobs. Robodebt is the very real proof that this needs to happen. Nonetheless, the Public Service must also be held to clear KPIs. It must be held to standards and accountability. There must be delivery of service. Things must be held to budget.

Section 34 of the Freedom of Information Act should be repealed. This section makes it too easy for the government to avoid scrutiny by claiming a document is a cabinet document and can't be released. This blocks journalists from revealing more, for example, about robodebt and so many other issues. Also the government should tighten the regulation of community development grants so that they serve the public interest rather than the interests of those in marginal and government held electorates.

Finally I would like to thank the staff and the team at Services Australia in my electorate, at the centre in Warringah Mall in Brookvale. I had the opportunity to visit them on Friday last week and discuss up close with them the incredible service they do to help the more vulnerable in our community around a number of services. I really thank them for their hospitality and for sharing with me their experience and their concerns—the very real concerns they have from time to time for their safety and how they are viewed. One of the very direct messages I have from them for government—and I think this applies to both sides—is that when politicians in this place decide to play politics and reveal, for example, issues around policy positions and put them out into the public arena, such as an announcement on JobSeeker or something like that, those frontline staff have to deal with people coming to centres like Services Australia and handle their queries and concerns when they have not even received the detail or the brief or anything that might be intended by government. It's really important that we in the bubble of this place do not forget the public servants that are out there doing the work on the ground, on the frontline, helping so many in our communities.

So I support this bill, but I urge the government to take further measures as I have outlined. The government must take learnings from the past 10 years—robodebt, COVID, the PwC conflict-of-interest debacle. The government needs to proceed with reforms to create a public service with integrity, accountability, expertise and good governance at its core. The royal commission's call for systemic change must be acted upon so that robodebt can never happen again.